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JAL pilots failed alcohol tests 19 times since Aug. '17, causing 12 flight delays

The plane that carried foreign tourists from Hong Kong and other passengers into Kansai International Airport on a special flight is seen at the airport on the morning of Oct. 17, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Japan Airlines Co. (JAL) pilots have failed breathalyzer alcohol tests on 19 occasions since August 2017, causing 12 domestic flight delays due to pilot switches, JAL officials have revealed to the Mainichi Shimbun.

The major airline introduced a new type of detector for in-house checks that month. The revelation comes on the heels of the arrest of a JAL co-pilot in London by British police in October this year for allegedly arriving for duty on a flight to Haneda Airport in Tokyo with alcohol levels above the legal limit.

As the co-pilot had never failed an alcohol check on the old type of breathalyzer, it is possible that deceiving the device was rampant among some pilots at the airline.

According the company, the cause of the 12 delays was announced as "crew health conditions," and no mention was made about their breath alcohol levels. JAL, which is scheduled to have a press conference on Nov. 16 to reveal countermeasures to curb excessive drinking by pilots, will be hard pressed to explain the delayed flights in detail.

Current JAL regulations ban drinking within 12 hours of a flight, and obligate pilots to undergone breathalyzer tests before flying. In August last year, the airline introduced a new type of detector that checks breath blown through a straw, and records data via an internet connection.

In response to the London incident, JAL checked the stored data to find that 19 cases exceeded the alcohol limit of 0.1 milligrams per 1 liter of exhalation, resulting in 12 flight delays.

The airline's overseas offices used an old type of standalone detector that does not store data, and the pilot and co-pilot serving on the same flight crosscheck their test results. An individual close to the company said, "The new detectors found so many cases (of excess alcoholic levels among pilots), but I never heard about such instances when the old type was being used. I guess there is a possibility that people using the old detectors might have turned a blind eye to the excessive alcoholic readings of their colleagues." JAL suspects that the co-pilot arrested in London evaded detection by an illicit method.

Current aviation laws do not include provisions on standards for internal alcohol levels for pilots, or pre-flight tests. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has set up a panel of experts to start discussions on these issues from Nov. 20, with an eye to introducing legal alcohol level standards and making alcohol tests mandatory.

(Japanese original by Norihito Hanamure, City News Department)

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